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Rough Play Biting in Exotic Kittens; How to Teach Gentle Behavior

Generally speaking, small exotic felines (such as servals, bobcats, and caracals) tend towards very rough play. If you are considering the purchase of an exotic kitten, you should first of all be prepared for some alarmingly rough play behavior.

Not all kittens will act like this, but mine certainly did, and I know of many others. As a result, I find that one of the top challenges facing new owners is that of teaching their kitten how to moderate the use of their teeth and claws. The teeth are usually the larger of the two concerns; many exotic kittens bite very hard in play, and their natural eaction when you pet them is to interact with you right back, with their teeth! This should not be misinterpreted as aggression, but it needs to be taken seriously as any owner will realize after receiving a few playful munches!

The consequences of declawing, de-fanging, and bad training

Unfortuantely, today I witnessed the results of someone who was unprepared and incapable of dealing with this when I met a lovely young bobcat at a wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary owner described her as un-handleable but craving human attention.

Declawed and missing her front teeth and canines, she had been stripped of all her abilities by an intolerant or intimidated former owner, doubtless because they could not handle her natural play behaviors. When I knelt down and offered her my hand she walked right up and rubbed the side of her head against my hand repeatedly.

What followed this friendly overature was a heartbreaking series of behaviors. She reached out to bite me several times, once grabbing me painfully with her molars, proving that even a de-fanged cat can bite. She would then flinch and duck her head away, obviously waiting for a blow that she expected but did not understand how to prevent. She tried to swat me with her paws and throw herself at my body, all the while afraid of the consequences but craving attention so badly that she was willing to risk it. Here was a social cat with no social skills whatsoever, doubtless due to being in the hands of someone who lacked the patience and understanding to teach her.

As this sad case shows, declawing and even de-fanging will not solve the problem. Please do not subject your cat to either of these inhumane and crippling procedures, as without good training you will still end up with a cat you cannot handle.

What doesn't work

Some people suggest lightly swatting or tapping the kitten on with nose when he bites too hard. Personally, I found that this did not work at all with Sirocco, my serval. It actually charged him up more; I think he interpreted it as a challenge to play more roughly; he would back up momentarily and then launch a reinvigorated attack. I know other owners who experienced the same reaction to this tactic, and the bobcat of our story had obviously been struck for biting, but learned nothing about gentle behavior from it.

In most cases this will serve as an inducement to rougher play, and while it punishes biting, it teaches no alternate, acceptable outlet for your kitten's energies. You are unlikely to do your kitten any permanenent harm by trying this a few times, as it works for some people, but if you do not see positive results stop immediately. If you try to push the issue your kitten will just become rougher with you and learn to sneak-attack.

When Sirocco was small I simply raised my hands up to block him. He would bounce off my hands and give up. As he got larger that became less effective, and I tried reacting noisily to his pounces; yelling "no," hissing, and pushing him off me somewhat more roughly. BIG mistake! Sirocco was delighted that I'd finally seen the light and decided to wrestle with him. The tackling behavior escalated dramatically, and he also learned that if he pounced on me from behind I couldn't see him coming and block him.

Tactics like grabbing by the scruff of the neck or trying to pin the cat down produce similar results, but are even more likely to escalate the play behavior. I tried these a few times with Sirocco, and you should have seen the delighted gleam in his eyes when he thought he had finally convinced me to play like a cat! I have had some opportunities to watch exotic cats play-fighting with each other, and they are rough. You simply cannot win the rough play game, and you will not be able to "dominate" this behavior out of them the way you might expect to do with a domestic puppy.

Training tool #1: The Soft, Fuzzy, Much-Nicer-Than-Your-Hand Catnippy Toy

The first order of business is to get a toy that you can use to successfully divert your kitten's munching, gnawing energy away from your more sensitive body parts.

For most cats, this will be a soft, squishy fleece dog toy, freshly rubbed with catnip for added munching appeal. Tied to it will be a rope or cord to wiggle said toy in a tantalizing way without placing your fingers in jeopardy.

Safety note: exotic cats are prone to ripping such toys apart and eating the pieces, which can result in life-threatening intestinal obstructions. Don't leave your kitten alone with this toy or the attached rope, which can be eaten as well. You may be able to make an exception to this rule with very young kittens.

Diversionary tactics

Keep this toy near you at all times when interacting with your kitten. When he starts to direct play behavior at your hand (or any other digit or limb you find useful), wiggle the toy around until he diverts his attentions to it. Play a little gentle tug-o-war to reward interaction with the toy.

Offer praise for biting and scratching on the toy, and a firm, disapproving, but not overwhelming No! for biting you.

Learn to read your kitten's body language. When he is biting and scratching the toy, carefully pet him. You may only be able to do so for a couple of seconds at first; as soon as you see him letting go of the toy to focus on your hand, stop petting, get your hand out of the way, and wiggle the toy to get his attention back on it. This will establish over time that he can get attention and petting while diverting his urge to play-bite to the toy, and you should be able to pet and praise him for longer and longer periods of time.

What to do when bitten

When the kitten does bite you, completely still the bitten body part. This will make it seem more boring and less like a toy. Jerking and wiggling will stimulate his instincts to hold on or bite again, and reward the biting behavior. With your available hand, wiggle the diversion toy enticingly, offering a choice between the boring, still body part.

If he doesn't let go promptly, you can try to stuff the toy in his face, making him want to let go of you to grab it. If you are caught without your toy handy, the best move would be to pry his jaws off you unemotionally, stand up, and leave.

Get this crazy kitten off me! Tools of last resort

So what do you do when your kitten just plain tackles you, and has no intention of just giving up and backing off? You will soon realize that just putting up with it is too painful to be an option. My serval at one point developed the habit of launching himself onto my back from behind, grabbing my face with his paws and biting my head. Luckily this never caused me any injuries (rather remarkable, considering he has full use of his teeth and claws), but it's the type of behavior that cannot simply be ignored.

The best "last resort" in these situations seems to be spraying the cat in the face with something. In some cases, that something can simply be water in a squirt bottle. If this proves ineffective, then you can use vinegar and water in the squirt bottle. Should that fail, there is a citronella spray called Direct Stop that is marketed to stop dog attacks which will almost certainly be effective.

In Sirocco's case, water and water/vinegar were ineffective, although many owners report success with it. I took to carrying a canister of Direct Stop with me everywhere, and he would tackle me on the head I'd say "No" calmly and squirt him with Direct Stop a second later. The tackling became extremely rare, and then when I would see him about to pounce I'd say "No" and he'd stop and blink his eyes at me as if to say "Okay, don't spray me with the stinky stuff." Then I would praise and pet him, he'd head-butt me, and everyone was happy. I can't even remember the last time he did this now; the behavior is completely under control now that he's about three years old.

I would caution against over-using this method. If you simply use a spray, especially a powerful one like Direct Stop to punish biting and do not teach your cat an alternate, acceptable outlet for his drive to play-bite you will simply ruin your relationship. Quite possibly, the end result will be like the bobcat I just met; fearful but with no idea how to interact without being punished. Use a spray only when you need to get the cat off you due to risk of injury, or severe pain.

An untested tactic

Something I haven't tried but which might prove useful would be applying a bitter substance to your skin, which would taste nasty when bitten. This can be effective in bitey dogs, but I have yet to test it on a feline. Bitter Apple is a well-known bitter deterrent spray commonly sold in pet stores, but in general I find it useless for the purposed intended; preventing chewing on furnature, bandages, etc. What does work, though, is a spray and cream called Banguard sold by some vets to deter bandage chewing. Unlike similar sprays, this one actually works in my experience. It is expensive, but might well be worth it, especially to use on your wrists and arms as you work with your cat.

Banguard is hard to find online, but here is one link:


Getting another feline as a companion

It can also be helpful to raise your exotic with another cat (hopefully another exotic, as a domestic kitten may not be up to the challenge, and could end up being bullied) so that he has a natural outlet for his playful behavior. Having another cat around will not teach him how to behave appropriately around humans; you will still need to do your training but it can be easier without all of that frustrated energy to deal with.

A happy ending?

And what about the bobcat? I am going to make the three-hour drive to that sanctuary whenever I can and try to win her trust and teach her the social skills which will allow her to get the attention she craves. Will I succeed? Only time will tell, but if I do manage to win over an adult bobcat I'm sure the experience will have much to teach me, and I'll do my best to pass that knowledge along to my readers.

You remain responsible.. Forever...
For what you have tamed.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Article copyright 2005 by Jessi Clark-White


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